The Diversity Dance
By Megan Fowler

For pastor Worth Carson, greeting attendees at the back of Granada Presbyterian Church each Sunday morning feels like an intricate dance. When the Anglos come out, Carson shakes their hands. But members from Colombia want nothing less than bear hugs and cheek kisses. But not attendees from Korea and China — they would find these greetings terribly awkward.

“After the service it’s hug, shake, kiss, hug, shake, smile,” Carson said. “Those things are super important.”

Carson has been learning the steps to this dance since 1999 when he came to Granada in Miami’s Coral Gables community. The dance gets more elaborate with each passing year, but it also gets more beautiful.

When Carson began pastoring Granada, he realized how little his congregation resembled the broader community, which had been diversifying for decades. In 2000, nearly 50 percent of the Coral Gables community identified as Hispanic, Latino, or African-American. By 2014 that number had risen to 56.1 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

This cultural diversity barely registered in Granada’s sanctuary. While some members were bilingual and the church offered Spanish translations of the sermon via a headset, the church membership did little to reach the Spanish-speaking community around it. It was an unspoken rule at Granada to not bring up issues of ethnic or cultural diversity.

Worth Carson

Around 2002, Carson and Granada’s session decided to break the silence and started discussing ways to reach Miami’s diverse cultures. They considered options that would make ministry to Hispanics and Latinos a small element of life at Granada — options such as renting the building to a Hispanic congregation or starting a Spanish ministry.

Ultimately, Carson said, the leadership decided to “have our own congregation and leadership reflect the diversity of our city.” To make Spanish-speaking visitors and members feel welcome, the session realized Granada should ditch the headsets.

“It seemed like the best way to minister to the Spanish speakers would be to provide as much in Spanish to them as possible, which means a whole worship service.”

Three Services, One Church

Granada now has three worship services each Sunday. The 9:30 Heritage Service is a traditional worship service in English. At 11 a.m., a contemporary-feel English service meets in the sanctuary while an all-Spanish service takes place in Granada’s fellowship hall.

Granada’s leadership calls it the “unified church model.” The church boasts one session and one diaconate, drawn from the diversity of Granada’s three services.

As a way of celebrating this diversity, several times each year the two 11 a.m. worship services combine for a bilingual service. Carson said some songs and prayers will be in English, some in Spanish. The worship leaders encourage the congregation to worship in whatever language is most comfortable.

In December, Carson preached at the Spanish-language service and surprised members by preaching in Spanish. He called it a “terrifying” experience because he knows very little Spanish. But the Spanish-speaking members loved it.

Granada now translates every church publication into Spanish — from the website to small-group discussion guides developed by the church. The church considers translation an area of ministry in the church and has a translation team.

Dancing with Grace

Like any good dance, the diversity dance requires a large helping of grace, as there are times when members accidentally step on others’ toes. Latino and Hispanic congregants sometimes instinctively feel as though they are second-class members of Granada, and the church leadership must assure them that they are equal with their Anglo counterparts. And since members of Granada come from more than 40 countries, there are countless cultural differences that must be overcome to forge meaningful cross-cultural relationships.

Jamid Jimenez

Granada hired Colombian pastor Jamid Jimenez to serve as Granada’s Spanish-ministry pastor. In the process Jimenez had to learn English in addition to submitting to all the steps for ordination in the PCA.

Carson admits it might have been easier if Granada had simply hired a bilingual Anglo to be the Spanish-ministry pastor. Ethnicities matter to Hispanic members, and the staff must be careful that the Colombian pastor reaches members from all countries, not just the Colombians. But having a Latino pastor to minister to Latino members communicates to members that their pastor really understands their cultures.

“In the beginning we looked at things in a much more superficial way, and every year we are really going deeper,” Carson said. “It continues to be difficult because of that. When we began we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. But it has been very, very good for us. I have a hard time imagining what it would be like to be somewhere else where there isn’t this diversity.”

The Granada session brings in a cultural consultant each year to help the session work through any cultural misunderstandings that might have arisen.

In its diversity, Granada is also a church of tremendous hospitality, and language barriers are no match for the powerful generosity of people changed by the Gospel. Members who attend Granada’s Spanish-language service regularly host covered-dish lunches after church and invite the whole church.

Members from all of Granada’s services sit and mingle, with bilingual members (about 40 percent of the church) translating when needed.

Welcoming New Partners

Granada’s sanctuary faces a bustling intersection in Coral Gables, and drivers cannot miss the church’s majestic columns, towering steeple, and expansive facility. Gaby Viggiani used to find the church intimidating. As an Argentinian, she felt that the church was “very white.”

In 1998 Viggiani was hired to serve as the executive assistant to Granada’s interim and executive pastors, and she stayed on when the church hired Carson, all the while attending a Baptist church a few miles away. As Carson and the Granada session began discussing ways to create a more diverse church, Viggiani helped with the transition.

After a few years, she decided that her work at Granada was vital enough to begin worshipping there, too. Viggiani not only helps Carson translate the language, she also translates cultures for him, helping him understand his congregation more deeply.

What Viggiani loves about Granada is that despite members coming from more than 40 countries and some members not speaking the same language, Granada is one church. While Granada’s sanctuary once felt intimidating to Viggiani, she now says visitors of every ethnicity feel loved and welcome at Granada.

When Carson preached in Spanish in December, Viggiani said members were moved to tears by his act of love for them.

“When people come to Granada, people say, ‘You are such a friendly church. You welcomed me,’” Viggiani said. “Before we used to be known as the frozen chosen. But now there is diversity.”

What makes Granada’s model unique is how the church keeps integrating. Carson said Spanish-speaking parents often attend the Spanish worship service while their bilingual children attend the English service. After a few years, the parents will join their children at the English-speaking service so that the family can worship together.

Bob Hickson was baptized at Granada as an infant in 1952. He made his public profession at the church as a young teen, and now he is the clerk of Granada’s session.

Hickson was part of the session in 2002 when Carson brought up the idea of creating a church that reflected the community’s diversity. Hickson sees how God has given Granada a unique opportunity to bring the Gospel to the nations represented in the diverse, but transient, Miami community.

“All nationalities and races need to hear the Gospel — that’s the job of the church as a body. We are expected to spread God’s word to all nations,” he said. “In our location anyway, the mission field has come to us! When we are faithful in teaching and preaching the Gospel, God brings the people — of every background — who need to hear it and be saved.”

Creating a church culture that celebrates and encourages ethnic and cultural diversity requires humility and patience. Hickson and Carson both stressed the importance of listening to minority cultures. The change is hard, but the alternative might reject people that God has called a community to love and serve.

“It’s hard to change,” Hickson said. “But if your community is changing culturally and you resist the change by rejecting people who come to you seeking to know more about what you believe, you will miss out on a blessing from God.”

Carson stressed that becoming a more ethnically and culturally diverse church cannot be just an element of a church. It must be in the church’s core DNA. “A church built on the Gospel really does reflect its community’s diversity,” Carson said. “We should always be looking for ways to connect with our neighbors and love them, and this is what that is all about.”

Ultimately, Granada’s members see the church’s cultural diversity not just as a representation of the community, but as a richer taste of the Gospel. The grace, intricacies, and beauty of the diversity dance are not just expressions of cultural intelligence; they are a foretaste of heaven.

Megan Fowler tells the stories of people using the gifts God has given them in the places where God has placed them to faithfully serve Christ’s kingdom. She and her husband have three sons, and they live in Grove City, Pa. 

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